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What is RSS?

Aug 28

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Thursday, August 28, 2008 9:05 PM  RssIcon

Have you heard of RSS but don't really know what it is?  You've heard other's talk about getting updates via RSS or maybe reading blogs over RSS, but what IS RSS?  Read further to get a solid foundation of what Realy Simple Syndication is all about.

RSSShort Answer: Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a specially formatted file containing articles of information.  Ok, this is a gross over simplificiation but it's a start. :>  That logo you see on the right hand side, that's the RSS logo, that means you can take the URL, cut'n'paste it into your RSS reader program and start to enjoy!

Longer Answer:

Do you remember PointCast PointCast from the early 90s?  If you were in IT, you were probably blocking all that traffic cause it was either killing your network or people around your office were complaining about things slowing down to a crawl.  PointCast was the precursor to RSS.  PointCast would "push" news out to people as it happened and people would just look at it when they wanted to see new things. 

The alternative was, people would have to open up Netscape's Netscape bookmark's one by one.  This was more of a "pull" concept, you went and pulled down the data to view, but you had to do all the work.

With "push technologies" you would just sit back and watch.  hhhhhmmm sounds an awful lot like TV eh?  Maybe that's why it was so popular.  Yes, I'm serious when I say IT managers were freaking out trying to block PointCast traffic cause it was killing their networks!

Ok, enough with the history lesson.  What's all this got to do with RSS?  Just that you decide when you want to look at "stuff."  Your program goes and gets it all for you and you read it.  Very similar to reading a newspaper.  You decide you want to read, you get the updates and you're reading.

The "feed" I mentioned is an XML file. But that's it, it's just an XML file (which in itself means special things like it's got a special format, well-formed, etc), but it's just another file.  This means two things, as a CEO, you can get your expensive developer resources to program web pages/web services to deliver automated feeds automagically, or as a small business owner you can create the text file by hand and just drop it on your server and BOOM, you've updated your RSS feed!  Yup, that's what it means, it's just another file on your web server.

From a "customers" point of view, when you see the RSS logo (like on the right)RSS, it means you can click it then goto another page that looks something like the next picture (click for larger image).


PCHenry RSS Feed - Click on link to see full scale picture

If you do a View|Source on that page (in your IE not on the picture :>), you'll see a simple text file.  It's an XML file that's well-formed, but again, just a simple XML.  How the server generates that XML could be a programmer's code, or somebody's excessive coffee-induced frenzy! 

In that XML, you'll see an RSS root node, with one or more channels and one or more items.  Items will have titles, description, authors pubDdate and a few other "things" for publishing articles.  RSS was originally conceived to distribute "articles" so the XML fields are slanted towards publishing.

After a bit of time, like a lot of development projects, some of the coders thought they knew better and could do it faster, so they broke away and came up with ATOM.  It's supposed to be more generic, applies to anything that could be distributed; books have chapters, movie theatres have movies, elctronic stores have sales, Dictionaries have words and definitions, etc.  It's also supposed to be the newer standard.  In a nutshell, if you understand RSS, you'll understand what ATOM is doing for you as well.

Now that you know what RSS is, how do you use it?  There are GOBS of RSS Readers out there. You can Google them, some are thick clients (a program on your computer, ex. Rss BanditRss Bandit) and some are internet based (you goto them using your browser, ex. newsgator nwesgator).  The smart clients give you the benefit of more flexibility with UI, and you can have more customized settings.  The downside is your rss feeds are on that computer only.  The internet sites  gives you access to all your feeds no matter where you are, but that flexibility comes at the cost of less customizations available to you.

I hope this article has explained the roots of RSS, what it is, a bit on how it's generated and how you can read them.  I hope you start subscribing to some now (like my RSS feed! :>).

PS If you're looking for some good RSS Feeds to start with, why not take a look at my BlogRoll on the left hand side of my blog page.  It'll should be enough to get you started.

References: RSS 2.0 Specification at Harvard Law

Wizard-Creek RSS Tutorial: Everything else you ever wanted to know about RSS but not covered here.

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